New light is shed on Uppsala's scientific history during the 19th century

12 september 2022

Historical building in central Uppsala

Many of Uppsala's foremost scientists have passed through the gates of the Royal Society of Sciences at 1 St. Larsgatan throughout the centuries.

Research has been carried out and supported for a long time in Uppsala, but not always as one of the university's primary tasks. During the 19th century, the Royal Society of Sciences in Uppsala was an important funder of research, primarily in science disciplines. The third book on Sweden's first scholarly society was published recently. Its author is Hans Ellegren, professor of evolutionary biology at Uppsala University.

It is perhaps not so surprising that the existence and activities of the Royal Society of Sciences may have passed unnoticed by many of Uppsala's residents. Formed in 1728, the society has kept quite a low profile, at least in modern times. However, in recent years, the general public has been able to find out about the goings on behind the façade of the house at 1 St. Larsgatan. In his books 'New and useful' (Hvad nytt och nyttigt) and 'An academy finds its path' (En akademi finner sin väg), Hans Ellegren portrays the development of the society during the 18th century. And now the third book has been published: The Royal Society of Sciences in 19th century Uppsala (Kungl. Vetenskaps-Societeten i 1800-talets Uppsala).

Hans Ellegren is Professor of Evolutionary Biology
at Uppsala University and since 2013 Secretary of
the Royal Society of Sciences.
Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

"I wanted to write this book because the 19th century is such an exciting century in Uppsala's academic history", says Hans Ellegren, who has been Secretary of the Royal Society of Sciences since 2013.

"Initially, the humanities dominated within universities and romanticism flowed in Uppsala. Later in the century, the sciences expanded with the creation of many new professorships and new buildings. In addition, in actual fact, half of the 19th century remains undocumented in detail when it comes to the history of Uppsala University.

Almost all members of the Royal Society of Sciences were professors of science or medicine. They published the country's first scientific journal, Acta Literaria Sveciæ - later Nova Acta Regiae Societatis Scientiarum Upsaliensis - and exchanged journals with academies throughout the world. For the Uppsala researchers, the journal became an important channel for the international dissemination of their results", says Hans Ellegren.

Important scientific supporter

The Royal Society of Sciences also owned what is perhaps the country's largest collection of natural objects. The members collected everything from minerals and fossils to dried plants, insects and exotic artefacts. For some time, they also conducted their own research project to measure the temperature in the ground in order to test the new heat theory.

Scientific development took great leaps during the 19th century, leading to breakthroughs such as electricity and vaccines. The Society's economy was strengthened thanks to donations, which made it possible to start awarding scholarships to young researchers. Among other things, the Society received a donation from the widow of Carl von Linné, Sara Lisa, which still funds the award of the Linné Prize to this day.

"During the 19th century, Uppsala University was primarily a place for education rather than research. The grants that the Society could then award to some of the university's researchers, in particular the younger ones, meant that the careers of several of our most famous researchers gained momentum, such as Anders Jonas Ångström and Robert Thalén."

The Royal Society of Sciences supported the university's researchers with that was known as 'project grants', which were unusual for the time. In 1844, doctor and botanist Johan Ångström, brother of physicist Anders Jonas Ångström, was awarded a grant of 66 riksdaler 32 skilling banco, which would correspond to several hundred thousand Swedish Crowns in today's money.
Photo: Hans Ellegren

What can we learn from the history of the Royal Society of Sciences?
"For researchers of the 19th century, it was important to meet across disciplinary boundaries and exchange experiences. The Society of Sciences offered, and still offers, a platform, a meeting place for such discussions. This is something that is missing at the university, which means that we don't really take full advantage of being 'the broad university'", concludes Hans Ellegren.


The Society of Sciences in Uppsala is Sweden's first academy of sciences. It has no connection with Uppsala University. The Society was established in 1728 by King Fredrik I, but has its origins in the Collegium Curiosorum (Guild of the Curious) from 1710. Today, it consists of 130 ordinary and 100 foreign members, elected on the basis of their scientific merits. The Society regularly awards a number of prizes and distinctions, including the Celsius Medal in Gold, the Linné Prize, and the Thuréus Prizes.

Find out more:

The book The Royal Society of Sciences in 19th century Uppsala (Kungl. Vetenskaps-Societeten i 1800-talets Uppsala; Open Access in DiVA) (in Swedish)

 The Royal Society of Sciences in Uppsala